Why BDS is replacing Iran as Israel’s biggest “existential threat”

Israeli occupation forces surround Palestinian protestors near the village of Jabaa in the southern West Bank on 14 March.

Abed Al Hashlamoun EPA

Last month US President Barack Obama made a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In exchange for $1.9 billion in US high-tech weaponry that will likely be used to kill more Palestinians, Netanyahu will shut up about Obama’s deal with Iran over its nuclear energy program.

The cosmetic disagreements over Iran caused a lot of noise among pundits, but never any meaningful rift between Obama and his close Israeli ally.

But now that Obama has bought Netanyahu’s silence on Iran, the Israeli leader needs another bogeyman to replace the supposed existential threat from Tehran that proved so useful to whip up the Israeli public and distract world attention from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

Netanyahu has declared, in effect, that BDS – the Palestinian-led movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions – is the new Iran.

In doing so, he is hastening Israel’s transformation in the eyes of the world into the old South Africa.

Speaking on Sunday, after successfully fending off a botched Palestinian Authority effort to have Israel suspended from the football governing body FIFA, Netanyahu warned that his country is facing an “international campaign to blacken its name.”

“It is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence,” Netanyahu claimed, adding that Israel was being singled out and held to unfair standards.

Israeli media go to war

Israeli media, often a willing conscript in Israel’s wars, rallied to his battle cry.

The mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot splashed the headline “We are combating the boycott” on its front page.

It prominently featured an op-ed by Ben-Dror Yemini headlined “BDS is a threat to Israel’s very existence.”

Yemini laments that the “influence” of Palestinian rights campaigners “has invaded the Hillel groups on campuses.”

He warns of the dangers of exposing impressionable Jewish minds to facts about the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Yemini says that BDS is “invading politics” – via “venomous” author Max Blumethal, whose father, he notes, was a senior advisor to former President Bill Clinton.

“This isn’t what happens in every Jewish family. Far from it,” Yemini writes, “But that’s the trend.”

Yemini attacks me and Omar Barghouti as “the leaders of the campaign” and contends that “almost everything the Nazis said about the Jews is said today by BDS supporters.”

In light of all these alleged horrors, Yemini states, my emphasis: “Yediot Ahronoth newspaper is also mobilizing for war.”

It followed up today with an op-ed by Noah Klieger demanding that Israel mount “an organized and coordinated counterattack and try to convince the world that the Palestinians’ arguments on most issues, if not on all, are nothing but a blatant lie rooted in [Nazi propagandist] Goebbels’ school.”

The New York Times enlisted too, with an article by Jodi Rudoren amplifying Netanyahu’s attack.

In another example of the newspaper’s typically biased coverage of BDS, it features quotations from five Israeli politicians but not one person actively involved in BDS campaigning to answer the lurid charges.

Rudoren, moreover, adopts as her own the racist Israeli rhetoric that the Palestinian BDS call’s inclusion of refugee rights amounts to a “demographic death warrant” for the “Jewish state.”

This ugly language – echoing frequent Israeli warnings about the supposed “demographic threat” from too many Palestinian babies – mirrors racist claims in the 1980s that giving votes to Black people would amount to “national suicide” for whites in South Africa.

Doubling down

There is nothing entirely new about Israel’s renewed attack on BDS. Indeed, Netanyahu used his speech to the Israel lobby group AIPAC in Washington, DC more than a year ago to sound the alarm over the growing campaign.

Nonetheless there is a new flurry of activity to try to slow its growth. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire financier of Netanyahu’s political career and kingmaker for the US Republican Party, has summoned “Jewish mega-donors” for what the The Jewish Daily Forward terms a “secret anti-BDS summit.”

Among them will reportedly be Adam Milstein, the convicted tax cheat and vocal Muslim-hater, who has bankrolled much anti-Palestinian activity on US campuses.

Minister for BDS

Netanyahu has appointed Gilad Erdan, a far-right Likud Party stalwart, as minister for “public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy,” with responsibility for leading Israel’s fight against BDS.

From the perspective of BDS campaigners, Erdan is a dream; his open bigotry and opposition to freedom of expression and democracy almost make the case for them.

“I think there are limits to freedom of speech, limits intended to protect the state from those who act against it under cover of our generous democracy,” he said in a Facebook comment aimed at Palestinian citizens of Israel who sit in its parliament. “When the right time comes, we will take care to clean the Knesset from its destroyers, who unfortunately operate from inside it.”

There are also new attempts to smear and intimidate students and faculty at US universities who support Palestinian rights by adding them to McCarthyite blacklists.

None of this is new, although Israel and its lobby groups appear to be doubling down on tactics that have been tried for years and have, by Israel’s own admission, failed to halt its slump into pariah status.

From 1986 South Africa to 2015 Israel

Israel’s repressive reaction against BDS is not even very original in the annals of settler-colonial regimes.

In the mid 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid regime made it illegal to call for boycotts or foreign sanctions, just as Israel has recently done.

And just as Netanyahu does today, in a 1987 New Year’s speech, South Africa’s apartheid leader PW Botha railed against the “wrong attitudes” of foreign governments and whined that South Africa was being pilloried while other “southern African countries [were] harboring terrorist forces against my country.”

The racist regime in Pretoria, just like its counterpart in Jerusalem today, also insisted that its problem was not the injustices created by its brutal policies but merely false perceptions fed by biased media.

“The kind of struggle in which South Africa currently finds itself is primarily a struggle of perceptions, not of conventional arms,” the government information bureau declared in 1986. “It is not so much the facts that create a psychological climate as the manner in which they are selected and presented.”

And just as President Obama lauds Israel today as a flawed but inspiring example for the world, President Ronald Reagan did as much for South Africa in a speech at the World Affairs Council in 1986.

Reagan even pointed to the racist regime’s supposed uplifting of women, just as Israel’s apologists today try to market that country as a feminist defender of LGBTQ rights:

We must remember, as the British historian Paul Johnson reminds us, that South Africa is an African country as well as a Western country. And reviewing the history of that continent in the quarter century since independence, historian Johnson does not see South Africa as a failure: ”… only in South Africa,” he writes, “have the real incomes of Blacks risen very substantially … In mining, Black wages have tripled in real terms in the last decade … South Africa is the … only African country to produce a large Black middle class. Almost certainly, he adds, “there are now more Black women professionals in South Africa than in the whole of the rest of Africa put together.” Despite apartheid, tens of thousands of Black Africans migrate into South Africa from neighboring countries to escape poverty and take advantage of the opportunities in an economy that produces nearly a third of the income in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

If you replace the names of the people and places, Reagan could well have been reciting a standard defense of Israel: despite its “imperfections,” Arabs are still better off there than anywhere else.

Though he called for reform, Reagan urged the US Congress and Europeans “to resist this emotional clamor for punitive sanctions,” as well as boycotts and divestment from South Africa, and to join him in urging “dialogue” and “negotiations” that the US would “support” without “dictating” an outcome.

Thankfully, Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other supporters and apologists for the South African regime lost the argument.

Congress did pass sweeping sanctions, but only years after popular movements around the world had answered South Africans’ call for BDS.

Only one way out

There is no doubt some exaggeration in Israel’s alarmism about how much pressure and impact BDS has already had – wild exaggeration and outright lies were also the key to its campaign against Iran.

But in some areas, such as academia, Israel is facing a “latent” or quiet boycott that may well exceed what is openly declared, as Israeli academics themselves attest.

Still, Israel enjoys tremendous backing in centers of corporate and political power in the United States and Europe. But it knows that as with South Africa, these bastions of support for injustice are always the last to fall.

There can be no doubt, however, that 10 years after Palestinians issued the BDS call, the momentum is with them. BDS is a strategic threat to Israel’s regime of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of the world, the cause of justice and equality throughout Palestine is winning, and BDS provides a set of tactics for people everywhere to mobilize their support into effective pressure.

At this stage, Israel can no longer ignore the Palestinians but it still believes it can defeat BDS solely through repression.

Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea understands that while Israel won the battle in FIFA it is set to lose many more as “a large part of Israel’s friends in the West” increasingly find its policies “morally and politically” indefensible.

Israel occupies and could coerce the Palestinian Authority into giving up its campaign against Israel at FIFA, Barnea says, “But as long as we have not occupied the rest of the world, we have a problem.”

In the next few critical years, BDS must and will help many more Israelis reach this conclusion: there is no other way out, no other path to peace and normality, except to respect Palestinian rights – all of them.




This is a good analysis, with several caveats:

1) The BDS movement is nowhere near as developed as this article relates -- not in the US at least. It is rejected by politically-centrist students and faculty. Polling indicates that younger students are not as pro-Israel as their parents, but that they still back Israel by a comfortable margin. It's possible they will catch up as they mature.

To the extent BDS has managed to pass among students, it has only targeted American corporations complicit in the occupation. Broader measures aimed at targeting Israeli companies or imposing blanket boycotts of Israeli goods have not managed to gain traction anywhere. Only three obscure academic associations have adopted boycotts of Israel, and the ASA went back on its own after being threatened with a national origin discrimination lawsuit.

2) The Haaretz article that Ali cites admits that Israel is not being boycotted in the sciences, just in the humanities (which don't really matter) and to a very limited extent.

3) There is legislation being drawn up that will disincentivize engaging in boycotts of Israel. While BDS activists scoff at government and laws, legislation helped Israel defeat the Arab League boycott. It can work again here; there aren't enough consumers actively boycotting Israel to balance out the powerful arm of the government

4) Public opinion is a fickle thing. The rise of ISIS and pronounced increases in Islamic terrorism will engender sympathy for Israel. Indeed, in Europe the right is in the ascendancy and is significantly more pro-Israel than the left.

5) Israel has budding relationships with India and China, the world's two most populous countries. Both of these countries will gain economic strength at the expense of Europe in the coming years. Israel needs to diversify its export markets to avoid the catastrophic economic consequences of a European boycott. India, China, and the Far East present a golden opportunity for Israel.


"This is a good analysis, with several caveats."

Indeed, a new tactic has made its appearance among hasbaristas. The shrill, barking spasms of hate, the smears and insults have failed to do their job. So it's time for the reasonable approach, one akin to the resumption of spurious "negotiations" on a fraudulent two-state solution to a one-state problem. To this end, you've begun with a statement that boils down to, "Of course I agree with you, apart from all essential points."

I'll let Ali Abunimah himself respond in detail, if he wishes, to your characterization of BDS resolutions and the movement's growing impact as insignificant. But if you really believed that line, you would hardly bother to post it here. Nevertheless, I noted in your comment a number of casual asides which I took to be indicative of an elitist contempt for your opponents, including: "only three obscure academic associations" and "Israel is not being boycotted in the sciences, just in the humanities (which don't really matter)" Ah yes, the humanities- art, history, philosophy, religion- preoccupations of sordid little people who count for nothing.

You also cite with satisfaction new laws which will criminalize free speech (boycotts being a form thereof) as though certainty in your cause is confirmed through jailing your opponents. And you suggest that the rise of violent Islamist forces will somehow engender global support for the Israeli ethnocratic state, itself a bastion of religious bigotry. Frankly, it's more likely that Israel will increasingly be seen as a variant of the problem rather than its solution.

Finally, you cite trade with India and China as potential guarantors of Israel and apartheid. Relying on such powers carries its own risks. I am reminded of Thackeray's observation, "Those sharp tools with which great people cut out their enterprises are generally broken in the using: nor did I ever hear that their employers had much regard for them in their ruin."


It's not supposed to be elitist. I don't want it to come across that way. Here are my responses:

1) Humanities do count. But they don't count for the Israeli economy. Science does. It wasn't a sneer at literature.

2) India and China aren't guarantors of anything. The US is the guarantor of Israel. If you check the statistics, Israeli exports to Europe are increasing despite boycott panic. All I was saying is that the markets in India and China could make up for a consumer boycott in Europe. They could not compensate for severe European government sanctions -- not right now at least.

3) No one is criminalizing free speech. That is a straw-man argument. The US government is using its financial weight to discourage boycotts of Israel. It's not a violation of free speech. That point has been settled before by the courts. Besides, it's going after foreign companies which have no constitutional right to free speech in America anyway. It's a moot point.

4) They were three obscure academic associations. Even on the ASA vote, not many people took part. And it went back on the boycott after being threatened with a discrimination lawsuit.

5) Obviously I am worried about the movement. It can do Israel great harm if the public were to embrace it. But we aren't at that point yet. It is mostly limited to Universities and far-left activists. But it has the potential to cause Israel great damage if not checked.


One - The boycot of Apartheid SA in the Netherlands started, if I recall correctly, in academia and in the humanities. Around 1970, students began criticizing the brotherly bonds between the (my) Free Reformed Universty in Amsterdam, and the likewise christian (elite) University of Potchefstroom. At first, these protest were mostly religiously inspired, only later to become political.

Two - A big difference between SA and Israel, between then and now, is the perception (in the Netherlands) of the oppressed. Then: the poor victims of a brutal colonial past whom we owed a lot, but of whom we had few around. Now: outlandish folk - mainly peasants from Anatolia and the Rif mountains - flooding Western Europe over the last 40 years, taking an intolerant religion and anti-semitism with them. They disrecpect our way of life in general, and 'our' Jews and 'our' Holocaust in particular; we owe them nothing. (I'm trying to paint the dominant Dutch narritive honestly, in a few words; it is not the extreme right position.)
'Moroccans' are not favorably looked upon, especially the youngsters, who are the Dutch equivalent of black inner city kids in America. They are overrepresented in crime - but also up and coming in colleges and universities. The latter are the group that drives the still marginal Dutch solidarity and BDS movements, but as not fully accepted citizens they are really vulnerable. 'White' allies like the International Socialists and Maoist splinters are a liability rather than an asset, if you want to broaden the movement. 'Celebrities' who spoke out pro-Palestine - even a former prime-minister - were ostracized from the public debate. Among my old activist friends from the1970s, anti-Apartheid veterans included, 'Israel' is a third rail mostly. My own anti-zionism – still pretty fresh – is considered 'rude', and mostly ignored.
But slowly things seem to change, 'Gaza' and Netanyahu's behaviour are having an impact.


While you might be right that the article is overly optimistic, it seems to me that the trend still favours justice.

To pick one bone, Europe is not going uniformly rightward: Greece and Spain are clearly moving left. While on Europe's periphery, both these countries are not insignificant. Greece, for example, acted as an extension of the Israeli regime in blocking the Gaza Flotilla a few years ago -- but the new Syriza government has stated that the country is no longer Israel's patsy.

And don't ignore Latin America. Venezuela and Bolivia, even while under attack by Uncle Sam, clearly support Palestinian rights, disproving any notion of a pro-Zionist international consensus.


The United States is going to be the dominant superpower for the foreseeable future. Its support for Israel isn't going anywhere. It's in America's strategic interests at the moment and public support and lobby power encourage it.

You should go to YouTube and search for Israel Day Parade 2015. Americans are fond of Israel.

Europe will largely side with the United States; the publics in these countries are not vehemently anti-Israel.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world grows weaker by the day. It's facing demographic-economic collapse in a few years and has no human capital to replace its declining oil reserves. It will weaken considerably, and the countries bordering Israel will likely break down completely in the coming years.



You are dreaming in techncolor about "Israel's prospects." I don't belong to or work for BDS, but I think everyone now smells South Africa all over again. Israel got itself to this point on its own, and it has dragged the United States with it, to no avail. Now, payback.

Israel has two choices:

1) Change peacefully; recognize all of the Palestinians' rights; return the lands you stole from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan; or,

2) Go with a bang. I would not want to contemplate the final result of that--say, if it attacked Lebanon another time, or waded deeper into Syria than it already has.

So, please stop babbling about "Israel's chances" with the rest of the world. Neither China nor India gives a hoot about Israel or its self-worship or its sacred forgeries. Israel has no chance with the "rest of the world" once it is disconnected from its Western sponsors, as South Africa was, and they are on the verge of doing just that. It lives on handouts from the American public and wealthy private con-artists.

Netanyahu's sudden realization of this reflects how dire its situation has become. Israel talks big, but now we are going to see exactly how big. I suspect it has always been smaller than the Wizard of Oz in his world of endless fantasies.

Even its nuclear arsenal is a joke. If it ever threatens to use nuclear bombs, as it has insinuated in the last few months, or if it decides to use one even "for demonstration," God forbid, then it would be quickly liquidated by, guess who? Its own handlers. Everyone but its impressionable Wahhabi-Saudi friends knows that you can't conduct modern wars with nuclear bombs. All yu do is set yourself up for a painful end.

Whatever Israel does, this is the end of the road. It has no chance of surviving in its present form simply because it will not be allowed to.


The Israel/South Africa comparison is very flawed and misleading. (1) By the 1960s many white South Africans knew the jig was up. After the 1976 Soweto riots there was a mass exodus of white South Africans, including many of Afrikaner descent. Whites there know that it is NOT their country and they are settlers. Israelis do not see themselves as settlers and believe unlike white South Africans that it is their country. This subjective belief is very important because it means Israelis will fight harder to keep Israel than white South Africans did to keep apartheid.
(2) Black South Africans outnumbered white South Africans by 8/1 and controlled the economic means of production. This is why in the 1960s, whites knew apartheid was doomed. All blacks had to do was strike and strike and riot they did. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, the whites knew the country wasn't going to go Commie and made their Faustian bargain with the ANC which preserved their privileges and resulted in the xenophobic kleptocracy we have there today (very similar to Abbas's PA). But the important point is in Israel (not the WB) Jews outnumber Palestinians 5/1 and control the means of production. The situation is totally reversed.
(3) Finally, there is the moral point. Very few people believed or thought of white South Africans as a distinct ethnic group or people deserving a right to self determination. They were seen as Europeans. Many people do believe Jews have a right to self determination in their ancestral homeland, that they are indigenous to it as well. So BDS I think will only succeed on the argument of WB occupation, not on the right of return.


Very sharp analysis.

Israel is very reliant on Arab labor but there are also foreign workers in Israel and enough Jews such that

The BDS movement relies entirely on SA rhetoric because it really has very little of its own going for it. Literally anytime they mention BDS, it is introduced as "based on the anti-apartheid South Africa campaign."

There are two massive elephants in the room that Ali Abunimah and his ilk ignore. The first is that people see Jews as a people with the right to self-determination. The second is that the blacks were already in the country; the South Africa BDS movement wasn't demanding the importation of millions of people to artificially render the whites a minority. They already were a distinct minority.

In Israel and the WB Jews are around 60 percent or more of the population.


Both Finkelstein and Chomsky have made this point you state: by insisting on right of return BDS is shooting itself in the foot or overreaching b/c it's opening itself to the Jewish/Israeli reply "what about us?" Most of the public still feels Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state behind the 67 lines. I do not see BDS changing this view nor I do I see it ever getting to the point in the US where the gov't imposes sanctions on Israel. The anti-apartheid movement in the US was so successful b/c the US itself had just gone through a civil rights movement that involved black/white segregation. All the psychic and emotive buttons were in place when it came to white oppression in South Africa, which you don't have in I/P situation. I suspect but have no proof that anti-arab/muslim is quite widespread in the US and that most people prefer Jews running things in Israel than arabs, which is why I cannot see the movement gaining widespread momentum in the US. ISIS is the best PR Israel could have.


Jonathan Goldstein wrote: "The first is that people see Jews as a people with the right to self-determination."

That may have been true back in prehistoric times, but the world has moved on since 1967, when Israeli forces swept into the last piece of Palestine that remained for Palestinians, seized the Sinai and bit off another piece of Lebanon. After that came its 1982 criminal invasion of Lebanon, and Israel's steady decline. Everyone then understood its true intentions. Dominate the region. Well, it still thinks it has to break the Middle East up into ethno-religious enclaves with Western help or perish completely. This is the only prophecy that is coming true, but certainly not in Israel's favor. Gone is the triumphalism during Obama's visit 2 or 4 years ago. I could have told you then that that was the end of the road. Obama had just declared before the world that there was no daylight between the US and Israel. True, but self-absorbed Netanyahu did not interpret this correctly.

Like a bad arm wrestler, Mr. Goldstein, you keep twisting your hand and insisting, "Hey, you can't beat me!" But Israel can't fool all the people all the time, any more than it can hide behind a biblical myth forever. Everyhing has changed for it.

Insidentally, India is not interested in Israel but in the US technology Israel illegally sells.

After 75 years of archeological digs, massive disruption of historical sites just to favor "Jewish" history, desperate search for self-confirmation, Israeli Jews still can't prove a connection to the land except through the Torah, a tribal document they insist everyone must believe is God's word!

If I were religious I would call this the devil's, not God's, word. Anybody who justifies the the expulsion and, literally, the genocide of another people--an idea that is now being regularly aired by Israeli leaders--deserves the full application of the law. Continue to defy the law and Israel will find that its end is near.


And how did Jews become a majority in Palestine? By expelling the native population and settling foreign colonists in the country. You refer to the "importation of millions of people" as a BDS goal. Leaving aside the absurdity of this contention (since when do returning refugees count as imported people?) how do you suppose the millions of Jews from Philadelphia, Moscow, Cairo, and points all over the compass ever got to Israel? If returning refugees are "imported", what's the word for complete strangers with no connection to the land barging in? Many would call that an invasion.


Israel has no "right to exist" and never had one. Settler- colonialism
has no inalienable "rights" (See Michael Prior: THE BIBLE AND

It remains true that BDS cannot blow Israel off the face of the earth.
POOF!! It is sadly true, but true all the same.

I am a supporter of BDS. I never quite agreed with the proposition that
the "right to return" is "international law". Resolution 194 cited in the
BDS call was passed by the UN General Assembly but that by
itself does not make it "international law". I am no lawyer but inter-
national law would involve the UN Security Council (where it would
be blocked by the US as a "permanent Member" with the veto
power and/or a treaty. The General Assembly may declare
what it wishes but this sadly is not law. The rest I leave to
the international experts with whom I agree.

While there may not have been a functioning UN and inter-
national law when Zionists invaded and conquered
Palestine using brutal force, massacres, coerced
fleeing from their homes, murder, rape, and maniacal
political cunning, destruction of Palestinian communities
and apartheid and other discriminatory dictatorial control
and on and on (continuing today)... International law or
no, this is not only indecent but brutal and repulsive
behavior of the Zionists and supporters such as the US.

It gladdens my heart that BDS can make Israel feel threatened.
I have no doubt that Israel will fight back including (for example)
insertion of anti-BDS amendments in lands around the
world (eg in US trade legislation).

I am glad that A Albuminah called the 1.9 Billion dollars to
Israel a "deal". Are we all supposed to cry salty tears for
poor helpless little Israel against everyone else's "anti-
Semitism" (Israel says) ?

Join BDS. Help in any way you can. Even a small pick in
the Israeli monster makes it worth our effort together.

----Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA


wow - all this attention to Electronic Intifada! I love it.

my two cents: nothing anyone has said in any of the lengthy comments comes across as any sort of argument against doubling our efforts with BDS.
and, Israel's tactic of promoting islamophobia around the planet has always seemed like a losing strategy in the long run. they may find some pretty white faces in the Netherlands to help, but they will only find ugly ones in the US. it will backfire in the US.

anyway, thanks EI and Ali!

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.